March 23, 2012

Big in Japan


Forty-five years ago Oxford University Press published the first edition of William H. McNeill’s survey, A World History. It’s still in print. Now in its fourth edition, the book has not had significant trade sales in the US for at least a decade, according to Nielsen BookScan.

But McNeill’s book seems to have become a bestseller in Japan. According to an article in Tokyo’s largest daily newspaper, Yomiuri Shimbun (via the online edition of the Kansas City Star), the Japanese translation, which was published in two parts in 2008, has sold more than 300,000 copies combined.

A historian who taught at the University of Chicago for 45 years, McNeill is best known for The Rise of the West, cited by President Obama when awarding his 92-year-old former colleague a National Humanities Medal in 2009. That book won a National Book Award for History in 1964. McNeill modeled himself after the renowned, if now out-of-fashion, Arnold J. Toynbee, whose early volumes of A Study of History were his inspiration. McNeill studied with Toynbee in London and later wrote a biography of his former mentor, a job he described as “painful … because some of the things that I discovered about him were not very admirable. I had looked up to him very much when I was young” — surely every biographer’s hazard.

The bestselling book of “history” in the United States right now is Killing Lincoln by America-protector Bill O’Reilly and bestselling co-author Martin Dugard. Although compiled in six months and endorsed by no bona fide historian, the book has sold, again according to Nielsen BookScan, one million copies. Nelson DeMille, stalwart thriller-writer, blurbs “Add historian to Bill O’Reilly’s already impressive résumé.”

The book’s Amazon page also quotes the Christian Science Monitor:

“[Killing Lincoln] delivers a taut, action-packed narrative with cliff-hangers aplenty…”

but forgets the other hand of its verdict:

“…sensationalized, suggestive, and overly simplistic… [it] gives us a Lincoln cleansed of all controversy and complexity.”

It may be tempting to draw from these two success stories a comparison that is unflattering to American readers, but that would be … simplistic. Still, Japanese and Americans do read differently, and while to compare results of Japan’s homogeneity with those of our pluralist hodgepodge may do a disservice to both countries—Japan does boast higher graduation and literacy rates.

(The world’s three largest circulating papers are Japanese. The Yomiuri Shimbun calls itself  “Japan’s Best-Read Newspaper.” I wasn’t sure if this meant “most widely read” or “most attentively read” but these circulation figures indicate the former; this study of the differences between Japanese and American reading instruction, and the Japanese inculcation of “deep reading,” suggest that the former may also be true. The paper claims almost 10 million daily readers. Circulation of the New York Times, by comparison, is 10% of that number.

The Yomiuri Shimbun piece is worth reading for such koanic conundrums as this:

“World history is a compulsory subject at high schools. However, in 2006 it was found that the subject was not taught at many high schools.”)

Finally, if Wikipedia is to be trusted, Mr. McNeill is still alive, nearly 95 years old. I hope that he’s been cheered by his belated bestseller. Its success may be seen as an illustration of one of his recurring theses. As Toynbee commended it: “He has a vision of the history of mankind as the unity that it always has been potentially and that it has become in fact in our time.”


Dan O'Connor is the Managing Editor of Melville House.